Obama may cede Iran's nuclear rights
By M K Bhadrakumar
When the wastes of Qyzylqum and Karakum blossom in early spring, the enchanting
sight can pain one's heart. But the killer deserts are deceptive in appearance,
especially Qyzylqum, which is in the tract of land between the two great rivers
in Central Asia - the Amu Darya and Sirdarya.
In the spring of 1220, when Genghis Khan abruptly rode out of the Qyzylqum with
a few hundred Mongol horsemen to take the Amir of Bukhara by surprise, the Amir
never imagined that the desert would so easily concede safe passage to a Mongol
stranger. Bukhara - one of the biggest cities at that time along with Cordoba,
Cairo and Baghdad - paid heavily for the desert's
treachery. Bukhara took over two centuries to recover from "God's wrath", which
the austere Khan insisted he was administering to the slothful, opulent city
for its sinful ways.
It is again early spring in the Central Asian steppes. There is a deceptive
calm, but all signs are that the Great Game is bestirring from its slumber. The
United States is focusing on the key Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, which
straddles the Qyzylqum and the Karakum, to stage a strategic comeback in the
region. Prospects are brighter than ever as Kazakhstan is edging closer to the
chairmanship of the Organization of Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE) next year. The OSCE leadership brings Kazakhstan into the forefront of
the Western strategies in Eurasia - and out of Russian orbit.
The war in nearby Afghanistan provides the backdrop for the US's proactive
diplomacy. But that, too, is deceptive. It seems the US is also probing a
solution to the Iran nuclear problem with Kazakhstan's helping hand. The
urgency is great and President Barack Obama has already hinted that he intends
to pay a visit to Kazakhstan, the first ever to the steppes by an American
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is "carefully
considering" the setting up of an international uranium fuel bank in
Kazakhstan, which could form the exit strategy for the historic US-Iran
standoff. That is why the visit by the Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to
Astana, Kazakhstan, on Monday assumes exceptional importance.
In bits and pieces, a stray thought has been surfacing in the recent months in
the US discourses over the situation surrounding Iran. It sought a rethink of
Washington's insistence on Iran jettisoning its pursuit of uranium enrichment
as a pre-requisite of commencement of direct talks between the two countries.
This was borne out of a growing realization that the US insistence was no
longer tenable. A logjam has indeed developed as it became clearer by the day
that within the fractious Iranian opinion there is virtual unanimity when it
comes to the continuance of the country's nuclear program, and effecting a
regime change in Tehran didn't necessarily alter Iran's policies.
The Obama administration faces the reality that unless the impasse is broken
somehow, the standoff continues. The standoff worked to Iran's advantage only
insofar as the country speeded up its nuclear program ever since the series of
United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions since 2006 began forbidding
Iran from enriching uranium. Iran today has installed over 5,500 centrifuges
and built up a stockpile exceeding 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.
It now appears that the US might cede to Iran's nuclear program. The Wall
Street Journal reported last Friday that as part of a policy review
commissioned by Obama, "diplomats are discussing whether the US will eventually
have to accept Iran's insistence on carrying out the [enrichment] process,
which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons-grade material". The newspaper
assessed that the Obama administration's message to Tehran is increasingly
shaping up as "Don't develop a nuclear weapon" - a nuanced stance that would
not rule out a deal accepting Iranian enrichment as such. It pointed out that
Obama's articulations on the subject have become much less specific than those
of former president George W Bush, who never minced words in crying a halt to
The new thinking is that the priority should be to win greater access for UN
inspectors to the Iranian nuclear establishments, as compared with the current
limited inspection regime, which has led to diminishing information regarding
Iran's nuclear program. In other words, why not trust Iran to retain its
enrichment activities so long as its program can be effectively verified.
In this scenario, it is significant that following talks with Ahmadinejad,
Kazakhstan President Nurusultan Nazarbayev chose the venue of their joint press
conference on Monday in Astana to make the public offer that his country is
willing to host a global nuclear fuel bank as part of a US-backed plan to put
all uranium enrichment under international control. "If such a nuclear fuel
bank were to be created, Kazakhstan would be ready to consider hosting it on
its territory as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and as a
country that voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons," Nazarbayev said.
The veteran Kazakh statesman (who might have been the Soviet Union's prime
minister but for the superpower's implosion in 1991) didn't speak out of the
blue. Such impetuousness is alien to his shrewd political temperament. He knew
the time has come for his proposal to be publicly voiced. It is an idea that is
evidently supported by Obama. It devolves upon the creation of a global
repository that would allow countries to tap into Kazakhstan's vast reserves of
uranium to fuel their nuclear plants without having to develop their own
enrichment capability. At any rate, Ahmadinejad also chose to publicly welcome
the Kazakh proposal. "We [Iran] think that Nurusultan Nazarbayev's idea to host
a nuclear fuel bank is a very good proposal," he noted.
These are, of course, early days. However, Iran used to maintain at one point
that it would be open to the idea of stopping sensitive uranium enrichment if a
supply of nuclear fuel from abroad could be guaranteed. In the face of the Bush
administration's mindless containment strategy, the Iranian stance hardened,
especially as the nuclear file got transferred from the International Atomic
Energy Agency to the UN Security Council, and the country began harping on its
due rights to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, including enriched
uranium, for peaceful purposes.
Later on Monday in Astana, Ahmadinejad utilized yet another press conference to
argue that he welcomed Nazarbayev's proposal since "any country that has
uranium mines and the capability to produce nuclear fuel can also establish a
nuclear fuel bank". He then went on to elaborate the Iranian response:
regards the nuclear issue, two major developments are simultaneously needed.
One is ending the assumption that nuclear energy is quite the same as nuclear
bomb. And the other one is about disarmament by the nuclear powers in the
world. This would ease [Iranian] concerns regarding these powers and also ease
the global concerns. That is to say, the issue needs to be solved fundamentally
... Ever since nuclear energy got equated with [the] nuclear bomb, a monopoly
developed over nuclear energy, whereas nuclear energy has beneficial uses in
medicine, agriculture and industry. I wouldn't say that it was intentional to
equate nuclear energy and nuclear bomb, but, considering the broadly negative
fallouts of it, we cannot say that it has been totally unintentional, either.
Significantly, Ahmadinejad also utilized the second press meet to make some
positive references to Obama's recent overtures. "We hope Obama would manage to
… establish friendly relations with other countries on equal terms. We welcome
fundamental changes and are longing for them to happen … we are waiting for
practical deeds and real changes … Currently, the statements are satisfactory …
If fundamental changes [in US policy] occur, we ill definitely welcome them."
What emerges is that Japan might also play a key role in the US-Kazakh nuclear
paradigm and any resultant new opening with Iran. The news agency Agence
France-Presse reported that senior Japanese diplomats with deep experience in
dealing with Iran - Tatsuo Arima, special envoy on the Middle East, Toshiro
Suzuki, head of the foreign ministry's Middle East and Africa department, and
Akio Shirota, Japanese ambassador in Tehran - have held several days of
intensive consultations in Washington with the Obama administration, including
with the National Security Council in the White House.
Curiously, Japan and Kazakhstan have an expanding cooperation program in the
nuclear field. There is much complementarity between the two countries since
Japan is the world's third-largest importer of uranium, next only to the US and
France, while Kazakhstan possesses the world's second largest reserves of
uranium after Australia. Japan currently imports only 1% of its uranium from
Kazakhstan and hopes to increase it to 30-40% in the next decade or so.
As for Kazakhstan, at 1.5 million metric tons, it holds roughly 19% of the
world's total uranium deposits. More than half of the Kazakh deposits are also
available for extraction by in-site leaching, which is a cheap and
environmentally friendly method in comparison with extraction from open pits or
deep shaft mines. Kazakhstan produced 6,637 metric tons in 2007 and 8,521
metric tons in 2008. The production is expected to jump to 11,900 tons in 2009.
Japanese companies like Marubeni have moved into Kazakh uranium mines. Within
the framework of a series of cooperation agreements, Japan has agreed to
provide technology assistance to Kazakhstan for processing uranium fuel and
building light-water reactors. One key agreement in October 2007 enabled
Kazatompom, a Kazakh state company, to acquire 10% of Westinghouse Electric
from Japan's Toshiba at a cost of $540 million.
All in all, therefore, Kazakhstan is gearing up as a leading player in the
global uranium market while Japan is eager to secure a stable supply of uranium
for its growing nuclear energy industry. Japan is a notoriously reticent
partner in nuclear cooperation and the fashion in which it made an exception in
the case of Kazakhstan is truly extraordinary. From the US perspective, Japan
would be an ideal partner for fleshing out the idea of a nuclear fuel bank in
Kazakhstan since it has an advanced nuclear fuel cycle industry. Japan's
Rokkasho reprocessing plant gives it a unique status as the first country to
have such facility, though a non-nuclear weapon state. Japan is also committed
to commercialize practical fast breeder reactor cycles. At the same time, Japan
has been right in the vanguard of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
Washington would see that Japan fits well with Kazakhstan's ambitious plans for
developing nuclear energy, increasing uranium exports, and expanding nuclear
fuel production and export. Besides, Tokyo always kept up cordial ties with
Tehran through the 30-year period since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
More importantly, Japan rivals China in both the Central Asian and Middle
Eastern regions. The rivalry provides Tokyo with just the right impetus to pay
close attention to ties with Astana and Tehran, which are two key capitals in
Beijing's energy diplomacy.
But China won't be alone in taking stock of any US-Japanese-Kazakh tie-up in
the field of nuclear energy. Russia would be equally wary of the geopolitical
implications of any expansion of US influence in Kazakhstan. Russian companies
have been making robust efforts to gain control over Kazakhstan's uranium
mines. The Kremlin encouraged Astana to become a partner in setting up an
international nuclear re-processing center in Siberia. Thus, Moscow would be
displeased with any US-Japanese attempt to build up Kazakhstan as an
international nuclear fuel bank.
In short, Iran's support of the idea of setting up a nuclear fuel bank holds
the potential to address the US-Iran nuclear standoff. On Thursday, the
European Union's foreign policy advisor Javier Solana invited Iran's nuclear
negotiators for talks. He wouldn't have taken the initiative without
synchronizing with the Obama administration. The big question is whether
Washington will shed its reluctance to engage with Ahmadinejad, who is
completing his term in office in June. The indications are that Obama might be
inclined to directly engage, the impact on the presidential poll in Iran
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.